The group stage's biggest battles
The group stage of the World Cup is nearly upon us -- 48 matches in eight groups, from 12 venues, spread across 15 days. It can all be a little overwhelming, so here's a group-by-group preview of the key battles between teams, managers and players.
Teams: Brazil vs. Croatia
The opening World Cup game is the most eagerly anticipated match in recent football history. After years of preparation -- and protest -- Brazil will start the 2014 World Cup in Sao Paulo, expecting to defeat a Croatia side lacking the suspended Mario Mandzukic. Croatia possess great midfield quality but are weak in defence, and Brazil should counterattack their way to victory. But this is more about the occasion itself, with the singing of the Brazilian national anthem likely to be an iconic moment.
Coaches: Luiz Felipe Scolari (Brazil) vs. Miguel Herrera (Mexico)
This should be an interesting battle between a World Cup winner and a relative newcomer to the world of international football. Herrera's use of a back three in conjunction with wing-backs means Brazil's wide forwards should find space, so Neymar and Hulk could do some damage.
Players: Alex Song (Cameroon) vs. Ivan Rakitic (Croatia)
Song is one of Barcelona's most underwhelming purchases in recent memory, failing to have a significant impact in the deep midfield role. Rakitic is Barca's next midfield recruit following a superb season at Sevilla, and their meeting in Manaus will fascinate Barcelona fans.
Teams: Spain vs. Netherlands
A repeat of the World Cup 2010 final. Holland's strategy four years ago was highly controversial -- they made little attempt to play football and instead took a highly aggressive approach, which very nearly worked. This time around, the Netherlands are more classically Dutch under Louis van Gaal, and Spain might teach them a footballing lesson.
Managers: Jorge Sampaoli (Chile) vs. Louis van Gaal (Netherlands)
They're from two different continents, but there are certainly links between Sampaoli and Van Gaal; they belong to the same coaching school that also includes Marcelo Bielsa and Pep Guardiola. They favour a similar style of positive football, with width and heavy midfield pressing, and are both happy switching between a back three and a back four. This could be the tactical battle of the first round.
Players: Arturo Vidal (Chile) vs. Sergio Busquets (Spain)
Vidal and Busquets are completely different players, but unquestionably two of the finest midfielders in the world. Vidal is about power, drive, energy and goal-scoring ability, while Busquets offers calm passing and solid positioning. Vidal's role is strange -- he's an attacking midfielder who sometimes looks more like a forward for Chile, and Busquets will track him into deep positions, becoming a third centre-back.
Teams: Ivory Coast vs. Japan
Group C is fantastic -- four different styles, four different continents, and four sides capable of progressing. The biggest contrast will be between the Ivory Coast, a side boasting great physicality and counterattacking power, against a technical Japanese side that works the ball patiently through midfield. This match, incidentally, is also the latest kickoff in the competition -- 10 p.m. local time.
Managers: Jose Pekerman (Colombia) vs. Alberto Zaccheroni (Japan)
These are veteran coaches often criticised for favouring defensive play, but both are excellent tacticians, capable of varying their side's system midway through a game. Colombia have more attacking options, so Zaccheroni's Japan could be left to play a reactive role.
Players: Jose Holebas (Greece) vs. Juan Cuadrado (Colombia)
Holebas is one of the most staggeringly attack-minded left-backs in the competition, offering Greece much-needed forward thrust, but consistently out of position when passing moves break down. Cuadrado had a fantastic season at Fiorentina, and was arguably the best right-winger in Europe this season -- and has added a goal threat to his dribbling and pace.
Teams: England vs. Uruguay
Roy Hodgson has attempted to bring some of Liverpool's attack-minded football to the national side. He experimented with Brendan Rodgers' 4-3-3 system in friendly victory over Denmark in March, and could include five Liverpool outfielders -- Glen Johnson, Jordan Henderson, Steven Gerrard, Daniel Sturridge and Raheem Sterling. But England don't have Liverpool's MVP -- Uruguay do. Luis Suarez will be vital.
Managers: Oscar Tabarez (Uruguay) vs. Cesare Prandelli (Italy)
Uruguay's Tabarez has stuck rigidly to a 4-4-1-1 system in the past couple of years, while Prandelli has been more flexible, and Italy's system could change between matches. The ball is in his court -- how will he nullify Suarez, and how many strikers will he use against Uruguay's aging back line?
Players: Andrea Pirlo (Italy) vs. Wayne Rooney (England)
Round 2. Italy dominated England two years ago because Rooney failed to pick up Pirlo, despite both Hodgson and Joe Hart screaming at the Manchester United forward to get tighter. Pirlo was allowed the freedom of the midfield, and dictated the game. Hodgson says England have a plan for Pirlo, but does it involve Rooney?
Teams: Honduras vs. Switzerland
OK, it's hardly a glamour tie. However, of the 48 group matches, this is the contest where climate is most crucial -- this is being played in Manaus, the hottest host city, at 4 p.m. local time. Honduras will be accustomed to these conditions -- Switzerland are a better side, but they could struggle.
Managers: Luis Fernando Suarez (Honduras) vs. Reinaldo Rueda (Ecuador)
A contest based around insider knowledge: Honduras coach Suarez took Ecuador to the knockout stage in 2006, while Ecuador coach Rueda coached Honduras at World Cup 2010.
Players: Antonio Valencia (Colombia) vs. Patrice Evra (France)
An all-Manchester United clash down the wing -- Valencia is Colombia's captain and will attempt to skip down the flank, but Evra knows him better than anyone, and should be capable of prevailing.
Teams: Nigeria vs. Bosnia-Herzegovina
We all expect Argentina to top the group, and Iran to finish bottom. This match, both sides' second fixture, should decide who progresses. Played in the southern city of Curitiba in the evening, the climate should allow for a high-tempo contest, although Nigeria are primarily a counterattacking side and Bosnia have become more cautious in recent months.
Managers: Carlos Queiroz (Iran) vs. Alejandro Sabella (Argentina)
Iran coach Quieroz is a master of defensive organisation and formulated the most solid back line with Portugal at the last World Cup, while Sabella is more pragmatic than many Argentines would like, but must become more adventurous to break down a resilient Iranian defence.
Players: Miralem Pjanic (Bosnia-Herzegovina) vs. Fernando Gago (Argentina)
Not many Bosnians would get into the Argentine starting XI. In fact, there's probably only two -- Asmir Begovic, who is a fine goalkeeper, and Pjanic, a classy playmaker capable of pulling the strings and playing penetrative passes. He's probably better in that midfield role than Gago, and if he gets the better of their battle, Bosnia have a chance.
Teams: Ghana vs. USA
These sides meet for the third consecutive tournament. In the previous two, Ghana have eliminated the USA -- in 2006, with a 2-1 victory in the final group game, and then 2-1 again, after extra time in the 2010 round of 16. This is the opening group game, so the defeated side won't be eliminated this time, but they'll have a massive uphill struggle to qualify from a tough group.
Managers: Jurgen Klinsmann (USA) vs. Joachim Loew (Germany)
Two coaches who know each other perfectly. Loew was Klinsmann's assistant for Germany's run to the semifinals on home soil in 2006, and was given much of the credit for the tactical work, with Klinsmann supposedly concentrating on fitness and motivation. With Loew now in charge of the superior side, it will be Klinsmann's tactical ability under the microscope.
Players: Philipp Lahm (Germany) vs. Cristiano Ronaldo (Portugal)
We've seen this battle many times before, at international level and the latter stages of the European Cup -- in fact, it's been more than a decade since their first meeting. Lahm could be used in midfield or at left-back, but should start in his favoured position of right-back. It'll be a chicken-and-egg battle between the world's two best players in their positions.
Teams: Russia vs. South Korea
This match might be forgotten -- this is both sides' opening fixture, but takes place after Brazil and Mexico have played their second Group A match. Nevertheless, it's arguably the most crucial match in the group, with Belgium favourites to progress, and these two supposedly competing to join them. Whoever wins will be in an extremely strong position.
Managers: Hong Myung-bo (South Korea) vs. Marc Wilmots (Belgium)
You can't think about these managers without thinking of World Cup 2002. Hong was South Korea's inspirational captain on their surprise run to the semifinals, while Wilmots was absolutely superb for Belgium, scoring three goals in three group games, then having a goal harshly disallowed against Brazil in the round of 16, with the score at 0-0. As tacticians, however, they are still developing.
Players: Dries Mertens (Belgium) vs. Faouzi Ghoulam (Algeria)
An all-Napoli battle on the wing. Wilmots likes Mertens because of his defensive discipline as well as his attacking threat, and this will be crucial against club teammate Ghoulam, who is capable of flying forward and delivering a succession of dangerous deliveries into the box.
Michael Cox is the editor of zonalmarking.net and a contributor to ESPN FC. Follow him on Twitter @Zonal_Marking.